Going to Utah to pay my respects

Paul Jacob

3/28/2010 12:00:42 AM - Paul Jacob

Long before the crack of tomorrow’s dawn, this old man will be creaking out of bed, cantering to the airport and jetting to Salt Lake City, Utah. In some respects, I’m going there to argue against my usual political allies and in favor of my usual opponents.

But I don’t really see things that way. At least, nowhere near enough to consider chunking out the most important ally of all: citizen control of government. In America, we citizens are in charge. Or should be.

Game Change FREE

In Utah, conservative legislators are throwing out this very first principle of governance in an attempt to thwart an ethics initiative citizens are now attempting to petition onto November’s ballot.

Legislators have every right, of course, to oppose the initiative and to campaign for its defeat at the ballot box.

Legislators also have a right to legislate the rules for the state’s initiative process — within constitutional limits.

But legislators are not right to combine the two: To legislate the rules of the game in such a way as to defeat an initiative they oppose.

Utah’s initiative petition process is already severely limited. Citizens are completely unable to propose constitutional amendments. Plus, the legislature can be immediately alter or repeal any statute passed by voters via the ballot initiative.

Moreover, the process to place an initiative or referendum on the ballot is one of the toughest in the country. The state earned only a C- in Citizens in Charge Foundation’s 2010 fifty state report card of initiative and referendum rights. The signature requirement is far too high at 10 percent of the last vote for governor, but it is made many times more difficult because the 10 percent statewide requirement must also be accomplished in 26 of 29 state senate districts.

Still, at least citizens retain a desert snowball’s chance to gain a voice, to propose reform, to enact change.

And so, when voters propose a reform that doesn’t sit well with the majority of legislators — and what reform worth its salt would not run afoul of politicians? — those solons choose to attack the fundamental right of citizens to control their government by undermining the initiative process. And in so doing, to enhance their monopoly on the state’s political agenda.

In Utah, the attack on the ballot initiative process has been led by two conservative Republicans, Senator Howard A. Stephenson and Representative Brad L. Dee. These legislators authored Senate Bill 275 and House Bill 112, respectively, both of which have passed the legislature on party-line voting and now await a signature or veto from Republican Governor Gary Herbert.

Stephenson’s SB 275 makes it easier for folks who sign a petition to remove their names if they change their mind or feel they misunderstood the measure when they signed. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. But the bill goes much further.

While petition signatures must be notarized, SB 275 changes the law to remove that requirement — but only when removing one’s signature. Much more consequential, the main thrust of the legislation is to extend the period during which a signer can remove his or her signature.

Current law allows signatures to be removed until county clerks, who verify the signatures, turn the finished petitions into the state. Under SB 275, signatures could be withdrawn for an additional 30 days after the Lt. Governor receives the petitions.

The Utah Republican Party has discussed doing just that, running a campaign to contact and urge signers to remove their signatures. The legislation takes effect immediately and is being applied to the ethics measure. And others, about which legislators just rarely seemed very positive.

There are many problems with allowing signature removal for 30 days after petition signatures are turned in. It makes it that much less pleasant to sign a petition because you know you’ll have people calling you and filling your mailbox urging you to take your name off. And then calls urging you to stay onboard the petition, of course.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Washington state case, Doe v. Reed, concerning signer privacy versus public disclosure of petition signers. It could have implications for a law in which legislators or political parties are targeting petition signer and threatening their own members with ostracism for signing a petition to put a law to a public vote.

Back in Utah, one county GOP has already required their candidates to take a loyalty oath declaring they had not signed the ethics petition.

This signature removal scheme also turns the process into chaos by encouraging those who oppose a measure to sign its petition, thus fooling the proponents into thinking they have enough signatures. After the petition is tuned in, these individuals can then hop off the measure, sinking the effort. This is especially easy because of Utah’s draconian requirement that 10 percent of the vote must be reached in 26 out of 29 senate districts.

Proponents will have to collect tens of thousands of extra signatures to compensate.

House Bill 122 is even more blatantly unfair, arbitrary and disingenuous. Introduced by Rep. Brad Dee, the legislation simply removes deadlines for the courts to rule on challenges to an initiative.

The argument is that the courts should not have to rush their decisions. Haste makes waste. But if the deadlines in current law are too constrictive, one should increase the time allowed. Not end all limits whatsoever.

HB 112 allows Utah courts to effectively pocket veto any initiative by simply not ruling on a challenge. Would such a thing happen? In other states, it has.

This is supposed to be conservative law-making? Arbitrarily empowering courts and disempowering citizens?

There is a natural friction between legislators and any process that allows citizens to go around them, to trump them. But that’s the democratic process. That’s the key part of the deal we citizens made with you fellows.

That’s the law of the land.

Citizens have a right to petition their government and to have an open and accessible process to reform government. The supremacy of the citizenry cannot be supported and opposed on an issue by-issue-basis. That’s arbitrary, tyrannical government.

One either stands for the basic idea of government of, by and for the people or one does not. A rule of law is one thing we should all stand for. All the time.